12 April 2010

Dixie Carter

Though I can’t be certain, I suspect that watching Dixie Carter play Julia Sugarbaker, her best-known role, must be something like watching Michael Jordan play tennis: every serve is an ace, so that it never quite occurs to you that the player might actually be better at another kind of game. If Carter hadn’t been a theater actress, she’d never have been able to manage Julia’s signature tirades, in just about every episode of Designing Women, her CBS sitcom.

She structures those long speeches flawlessly, building a rising arc without neglecting the incidental highs and lows along the way; she makes it impossible for her audience to lose the thread of her argument. (My acting teachers used to despair that we their students would ever learn to do that.) Carter was also an excellent, classically trained singer,* and it’s likely that she saw Julia’s speeches as arias: certainly she hears the music in them, and shares their melodies with us. Most other sitcom actresses wouldn’t be able to memorize, much less perform, Julia’s speeches, but Dixie Carter made the work seem easy.

With her Designing Women co-stars:
Delta Burke, Annie Potts, and Jean Smart
(But you knew that already, didn’t you?)

For me, however, Julia Sugarbaker won’t be the role for which I remember her best: that will be Maria Callas, instead, in Terrence McNally’s Master Class. I resisted seeing the play when it opened, despite the raves it won for the double-whammy performances of Zoe Caldwell in the lead and Audra McDonald as a young singer. McNally and I have a lot in common, starting with Texan origins and a love of opera, but I worried that his Callas wouldn’t be my Callas — and indeed, she wasn’t.

So by the time Dixie Carter took over the role (the third actress to play Callas on Broadway, following in the footsteps of Caldwell and of Patti LuPone), I was resigned never to see Master Class. However, a friend, the conductor Gerald Steichen, was playing the onstage accompanist; one day at the gym, we talked about the show. “You should see it,” he said, with a serenely knowing confidence, almost like a Delphic oracle in sweatpants; “it’s not what you think.”

Jerry was right. For while McNally gave the audience a Diva but not a Callas, Dixie Carter gave us a fully rounded portrait of the artist in twilight. Every gesture rang true, and in her complete absorption of the singer’s physicality, she accomplished a minor miracle, by means I still can’t comprehend: she transformed her own nose into Callas’ considerably larger one. It wasn’t a trick of makeup or lighting: at the curtain call, she looked like herself again. For two hours, she had me fully persuaded that I was watching Maria Callas herself, in a play about somebody else.

I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with this phenomenon, the portrayal more real than that which is portrayed, so real that it resurrects the dead. When I was a boy, I refused to believe that Mark Twain died in 1910 — after all, my parents had seen him at the theater, and we had the record album to prove it. Dixie Carter happened to be married to Hal Holbrook, the star of Mark Twain Tonight! — so of course I alluded to his work in the fan letter that I wrote to her after seeing Master Class.

With Holbrook

She actually phoned me at work, a few days later, to thank me. The call caught me by surprise, and I was so flustered that I didn’t seize the opportunity to ask or to say anything significant. Though she was (as you might expect) graciousness personified, it was clear that my letter had interested her in a way that my conversation didn’t. Later, we met fleetingly at a CBS Affiliates Meeting, in Las Vegas, but otherwise, I never got any closer to the woman behind the actress than a few of Madeline Gilford’s stories (because of course Madeline knew her). Though she worked with my “other” Madeline, early in their careers, Dixie didn’t get along very well with Madeline Kahn, I’m told, so I had put off asking for an interview; now I’ll have to settle for quoting from James Gavin’s book, Intimate Nights.

And now the most readily available reference for Dixie Carter’s work will, for better or worse, remain Designing Women. Not often did the show rise to her level; mostly, the writers set up easy targets for Julia to attack. Carter is awfully good on the show, and yet I underscore here that never once did Designing Women cross my mind while I watched her onstage in Master Class. To be able to create a role as iconic as Julia Sugarbaker — and to be able to make me forget her, too, when she chose — is genuine artistry.

At the Carlyle: In the background, the late, lamented superhero of New York cabaret, John Wallowitch, tickles Dixie’s ivories.

*NOTE: I first saw Dixie Carter in On Our Own, a short-lived sitcom starring Bess Armstrong and Lynnie Greene. In one memorable scene, Carter sang “The Laziest Gal in Town” while slithering across her desk. (This was the first time I’d heard the song: I didn’t recognize it as a Marlene Dietrich number, much less as the inspiration for “I‘m Tired,” Madeline Kahn’s song in Blazing Saddles.) I never got the chance to hear Carter in her nightclub act, but the fact that I remember her rendition of “Laziest Gal” so vividly, after a single hearing 33 years ago, makes me certain that she was equally impressive when singing at the Carlyle.

No comments: